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John Herbert Dillinger (June 22, 1903 – July 22, 1934) was an American bank robber in the Midwest during the early 1930s. He was considered to be a dangerous criminal who was involved in the deaths of several police officers, robbed at least two dozen banks and four police stations, escaped from jail twice and was idolized by some as a modern-day Robin Hood. The exploits of Dillinger and his gang, along with those of other criminals of the Great Depression such as Bonnie and Clyde and Ma Barker, dominated the attention of the American press and its readers during what is sometimes referred to as the public enemy era (1931–1935), a period which led to the development of the modern, more sophisticated Federal Bureau of Investigationmarker.

After spending nearly a year running from police, and hiding out in Floridamarker, Arizonamarker, Michiganmarker, and Wisconsinmarker, Dillinger was wounded in one escape from police and returned to his father's home to heal. He soon returned to Chicagomarker in July 1934, the site of several of his highest profile crimes. He was discovered there by police, who were informed of his whereabouts by a prostitute. On July 22, they closed in on a theater where he was watching a movie, and moved to arrest him as he left the building. He pulled a weapon and attempted to flee, but was shot three times. One bullet entered through the back of his neck and exited from his face, killing him. His crimes were sensationalized across the nation, and his numerous escapes and robberies fed many urban legends in the United States.

Early life

Family and background

John Herbert Dillinger was born in the Oak Hill section of Indianapolis, Indianamarker, the younger of two children born to John Wilson Dillinger (July 2, 1864 – November 3, 1943) and Mary Ellen "Mollie" Lancaster (1860–1907). His parents had married on August 23, 1887 in Marion County, Indianamarker. Dillinger's father was a grocer by trade and, reportedly, a harsh man. In an interview with reporters he said that he was firm in his discipline and believed in the adage (from poet Samuel Butler) "spare the rod and spoil the child". Dillinger's older sister, Audrey, was born March 6, 1889. Dillinger's mother died in 1907 just before his fourth birthday.

Audrey married in April, 1924 to Emmett "Fred" Hancock and had seven children in total. Dillinger was cared for by his sister during his early life until his father was remarried on May 23, 1912 in Morgan County, Indiana, to Elizabeth "Lizzie" Fields (1878–1933). Initially, Dillinger was jealous and disliked his stepmother, but reportedly eventually came to love her. Dillinger's father and stepmother had three children, Hubert Dillinger, born c. 1913, Doris M. Dillinger, (December 12, 1917 – March 14, 2001) (married surname Hockman) and Frances Dillinger (born c. 1922).

Formative years and marriage

Dillinger attended public school at least through grade seven. He was frequently in trouble with the law for fighting, petty theft, and was noted for his "bewildering personality" and bullying the smaller children. He quit school to work in an Indianapolis machine shop. Although he worked hard at his job, he would stay out all night at parties. His father feared that the city was corrupting his son, prompting him to move the family to Mooresville, Indianamarker in about 1920. Dillinger's wild and rebellious behavior was resilient despite his new rural life. He was arrested in 1922 for auto theft and his relationship with his father deteriorated. His troubles led him to enlist in the U.S. Navy, but he deserted a few months later when his ship was docked in Bostonmarker. He was eventually dishonorably discharged.Dillinger then returned to Mooresville where he met Beryl Ethel Hovious (born August 6, 1906). The two were married in Martinsvillemarker on April 12, 1924. He attempted to settle down, but he had difficulty holding a job and preserving his marriage. The marriage ended in divorce on June 20, 1929.

Dillinger remained unable to find a job, and began planning a robbery with his friend Ed Singleton. The two robbed a local grocery store stealing $120. Leaving the scene they were spotted by a minister who recognized the men and reported them to the police. The two men were arrested the next day. Singleton pleaded not-guilty, but Dillinger's father convinced him to confess to the crime and plead guilty. Dillinger was convicted of assault and battery with intent to rob, and conspiracy to commit a felony. He was sentenced to ten to twenty years in prison for his crimes. His father told reporters he regretted his advice, and was appalled by the unfair sentence. He pleaded with the judge to shorten the sentence but met with no success. En route to the prison, Dillinger briefly escaped his captors but was apprehended within a few minutes.

Criminal career

Prison time

Dillinger embraced the criminal lifestyle behind bars in the Indiana State Prisonmarker in Michigan Citymarker. Upon being admitted to the prison he is quoted as saying, "I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here." His physical examination upon being admitted to the prison showed that he had gonorrhea. The treatment for his condition was extremely painful. He became embittered against society because of his long prison sentence and befriended other criminals, such as seasoned bank robbers like Harry Pierpont of Munciemarker and Russell "Boobie" Clark of Terre Hautemarker, who taught Dillinger how to commit crime successfully. The men planned heists that they would commit soon after they were released.

His father launched a campaign to have him released, and was able to get 188 signatures on a petition. Dillinger was paroled on May 10, 1933 after serving eight and a half years. Dillinger's stepmother became sick just before he was released from prison, but she died before he arrived at her home. Released at the height of the Great Depression, Dillinger had little prospect of finding employment. He immediately returned to crime, and on September 22 robbed a bank in Bluffton, Ohiomarker. Tracked by police from Dayton, Ohiomarker, he was captured and jailed in Limamarker. After searching him before letting him into the prison, the police discovered a document which appeared to be a prison escape plan. They demanded Dillinger tell them what the document meant, but he refused.

Dillinger had helped conceive a plan for the escape of Pierpont, Clark and six others he had met while previously in prison, most of whom worked in the prison laundry. Dillinger had friends smuggle rifles into their prison cells which they used to escape, killing two guards, four days after Dillinger's capture. The group known as the "first Dillinger gang" included Pierpont, Clark, Charles Makley, Edward W. Shouse, Jr. of Terre Haute, Harry Copeland, James "Oklahoma Jack" Clark, Walter Dietrich and John "Red" Hamilton. Three of the escapees arrived in Lima on October 12, where they impersonated Indiana State Police officers, claiming they had come to extradite Dillinger to Indiana. When the sheriff asked for their credentials, they shot him and beat him unconscious, then released Dillinger from his cell. The four men escaped back into Indiana where they joined the rest of the gang.

Bank robberies

The Division of Investigation (DOI, precursor of the FBI)marker was brought into the investigation to help identify the criminals, although the men had not violated any federal law. It was one of the first cases in which the DOI intervened in matters outside of their jurisdiction. Using their superior fingerprint matching technology, they successfully identified all of the suspects and issued national bulletins offering rewards for their capture.

Dillinger and his gang, in the meantime, began a streak of bank robberies across Indiana, although the first bank he ever robbed was in New Carlisle, Ohiomarker on June 10, 1933. Among Dillinger's more celebrated exploits involved his pretending to be a sales representative for a company that sold bank alarm systems. He reportedly entered a number of Indiana and Ohio banks and used this ruse to assess security systems and bank vaults of prospective targets. Another time, the gang pretended to be part of a film company that was scouting locations for a "bank robbery" scene. Bystanders stood and smiled as a real robbery ensued and Dillinger and friends escaped with the loot. Stories such as this only served to increase Dillinger's burgeoning legend. Dillinger was believed to have been associated with gangs who robbed dozens of banks and accumulating a total of more than $300,000. Banks allegedly robbed by Dillinger and his associates included the Commercial Bank, Daleville, Indianamarker of $3,500 on July 17, 1933; Montpelier National Bank, Montpelier, Indianamarker of $6,700 on August 4, 1933; Bluffton Bank, Bluffton, Ohiomarker, of $6,000 on August 14, 1933; Massachusetts Avenue State Bank, Indianapolis, Indiana, of $21,000 on September 6, 1933; Central National Bank and Trust Co., Greencastle, Indianamarker, of $76,000 on October 23, 1933; American Bank and Trust Co., Racine, Wisconsinmarker, of $28,000 on November 20, 1933; Unity Trust and Savings Bank, Chicago, Illinois, of $8,700 on December 13, 1933; First National Bank, East Chicago, Indianamarker, of $20,000 on January 15, 1934; Securities National Bank and Trust Co., Sioux Falls, South Dakotamarker, of $49,500 on March 6, 1934; First National Bank, Mason City, Iowamarker, of $52,000 on March 13, 1934; and Merchants National Bank, South Bend, Indianamarker, of $29,890 on June 30, 1934.

To get more supplies, the gang attacked the state police arsenals in Auburnmarker and Perumarker, stealing machine guns, rifles, revolvers, ammunition and bulletproof vests. They then headed to Chicagomarker to hide out. On December 14, Gang member John "Red" Hamilton murdered a police detective. A month later, Dillinger led the gang in another bank robbery, holding up the First National Bank in East Chicagomarker and killing police officer William O'Malley. Dillinger was officially charged with the murder although the identity of the actual killer was debatable, and it is in question whether Dillinger participated in the robbery at all. As police began closing in again, the men left Chicago to hide out in Floridamarker; the Gardener Hotel in El Paso, Texasmarker, where a highly visible police presence dissuaded Dillinger from trying to cross the border at the Santa Fe bridge in downtown El Paso to Ciudad Juárezmarker, Mexicomarker; and then Tucson, Arizonamarker.

On the run

John Dillinger's Wanted Poster
A fire broke out at the Hotel Congress in Tucson where the men were staying. Forced to leave their luggage behind, they were rescued through a window and down a fire truck ladder. Charles Makley tipped a couple of firemen $12 to climb back up and retrieve the luggage, affording the firefighters a good look at several members of Dillinger's gang. The firemen later recognized Makley and Ed Shouse while thumbing through a copy of True Detective and informed the police who promptly arrested Harry Pierpont, Charles Makley, Russell Clark, Ed Shouse, and Dillinger. They found them in possession of over $25,000 in cash, three sub-machine guns, and five machine guns. Tucson celebrates the historic arrest with an annual "Dillinger Days" festival, the highlight of which is a reenactment.

The men were extradited to stand trial in Indiana, where they were held in the Crown Pointmarker jail. Testimony by Shouse identified the 5 men as members of the Pierpont gang. Dillinger was charged with the murder of a police officer in East Chicago, while Pierpont and Makley were charged with the murder of Sheriff Jesse Sarber. The police boasted to area newspapers that the jail was escape-proof and posted extra guards to make sure. Dillinger was able to secretly carve a wooden gun in his cell. Using it, he was able to trick a guard into opening his cell. He then took two men hostage, rounded up all the guards in the jail, locked them in his cell, and fled. Dillinger stole Sheriff Lillian Holley's new Ford car, embarrassing her and the town, and traveled to Chicago. In so doing, he crossed the state line in a stolen car, breaking the federal Motor Vehicle Theft Act. The crime was under the jurisdiction of the DOI who immediately took over the Dillinger case after the car was found abandoned in Chicago. Dillinger was indicted by a local grand jury and the FBI organized a nationwide manhunt for him.

In Chicago, Dillinger began living with his girlfriend Evelyn "Billie" Frechette. They proceeded to Saint Paul, Minnesotamarker, met up with "Red" Hamilton, and mustered a new gang, adding Lester "Baby face Nelson" Gills, Homer Van Meter, Tommy Carroll, and Eddie Green. The landlord of their apartment became suspicious and on March 30, 1934, reported his suspicions to a federal agent. The building was placed under surveillance by the DOI agents who soon determined Dillinger was in the apartment. When one gang member, who was attempting to enter the apartment, was questioned, he opened fire on the agents before escaping behind a closed door. The entire gang then opened fire on the agents and fled out of a back entrance before back-up could arrive. They commandeered a truck and drove to Eddie Green's home. Dillinger was wounded in the escape and required medical attention. Federal agents later closed in on the building and the gang opened fire as they escaped and split up. Eddie Green was killed in the escape. Dillinger and his girlfriend traveled to the home of Dillinger's father in Mooresville, where they remained until the wound healed. When Frechette returned to Chicago to visit a friend, she was arrested but refused to reveal Dillinger's whereabouts. Dillinger was watching from a side street and wanted to rescue her, but he was stopped by the girlfriend of John Hamilton, who convinced him he would die in the attempt. Yet he still drove along the block several times and entered a police station to see if it was possible.

Dillinger returned to crime again. He and Homer Van Meter robbed the police station in Warsaw, Indianamarker, stealing guns and bulletproof vests. After separating, Dillinger picked up Hamilton, who was recovering from a wound obtained in a heist in Mason City, Iowamarker. The two then traveled to the Upper Peninsulamarker of Michiganmarker, where they remained for a short time. Dillinger received a tip that the DOI was headed to the town, and left just days before the agents arrived.

Final months

Little Bohemia Lodge

In April, the Dillinger gang settled at a lodge hideout called Little Bohemia Lodge, owned by Emil Wanatka, in the northern Wisconsinmarker town of Manitowish Watersmarker. The gang assured the owners that they would give no trouble, but they monitored the owners whenever they left or spoke on the phone. Emil's wife Nan and her brother managed to evade Baby Face Nelson, who was tailing them, and mailed a letter of warning to a U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago, which later contacted the DOI. Days later, a score of DOI agents led by Hugh Clegg and Melvin Purvis approached the lodge in the early morning hours. Two barking watchdogs announced their arrival, but the gang was so used to Nan Wanatka's dogs that they did not bother to inspect the disturbance. It was only after the DOI mistakenly shot a local resident and two innocent Civilian Conservation Corps workers as they were about to drive away in a car that the Dillinger gang were alerted to the presence of the DOI. Gunfire between the groups lasted only momentarily, but the whole gang managed to escape in various ways despite the DOI's efforts to surround and storm the lodge. Agent W. Carter Baum was shot dead by "Baby Face" Nelson during the gun battle. Barney G. Louis Boeding accompanied him during the robberies. At this time Nelson would separate from the gang for a while.

The next day, Dillinger, Van Meter and Hamilton were confronted by authorities in Hastings, Minnesotamarker. Hamilton was mortally wounded in the encounter. He was taken by Dillinger and Van Meter to see Joseph Moran, though Moran refused to treat Hamilton. He died on April 30, 1934. Dillinger, Van Meter, and members of the Barker-Karpis gang buried him. Dillinger and Van Meter then met up with Carroll and the three would spend all of May in hiding. On June 7, the three had a shootout with authorities and Carroll died in the encounter. Dillinger and Van Meter reunited with Nelson a week later and went into hiding.

By July 1934, Dillinger had dropped completely out of sight and the DOI had no solid leads to follow. He had, in fact, drifted into Chicago and went under the alias of Jimmy Lawrence, a petty criminal from Wisconsin who bore a close resemblance to the bank robber. Taking up a job as a clerk, Dillinger also found a new girlfriend named Polly Hamilton, who was unaware of his true identity. In a large metropolis like Chicago, Dillinger was able to lead an anonymous existence for a while. What Dillinger didn't realize was that the center of the DOI dragnet happened to be in Chicago. When the authorities found Dillinger's bloodied getaway car on a Chicago side street, they were positive that he was in the city.

Lady in Red

DOI Chief J. Edgar Hoover created a special task force headquartered in Chicago to locate Dillinger. On July 21 a madam from a brothel in Gary, Indianamarker, Ana Cumpănaş, also known as Anna Sage, contacted the police. She was a Romanian immigrant threatened with deportation for "low moral character," and offered the DOI information on Dillinger in exchange for their help in preventing her deportation. The DOI agreed to her terms. Cumpănaş told them that Dillinger was spending his time with another prostitute, Polly Hamilton, and that she and the couple would be going to see a movie together on the following day. She agreed to wear an orange dress, which appeared red in the lights of the theater, so that police could easily identify her at the theater. She was unsure which theater they would be attending, but told the DOI the name of the two theaters, the Biograph and the Marbro, in which they would potentially be.

A team of both DOI agents and officers from police forces outside Chicago was formed. Chicago police officers were excluded because it was felt that the Chicago police had been compromised and could not be trusted. Not chancing another embarrassing escape, the police were split into two teams. On July 22, one team was sent to the Marbro Theater on the city's West Side, while another team surrounded the Biograph Theatermarker at 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue on the North Side. During the stakeout, the Biograph's manager thought the agents were criminals setting up a robbery. He called the Chicago police who dutifully responded and had to be waved off by the DOI, who told them that they were on a stakeout for a much more important target.

Biograph Theater

FBI photograph of the Biograph in 1934, soon after Dillinger's death.
Dillinger attended the film Manhattan Melodrama at the Biograph Theatermarker in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhoodmarker. Dillinger was with his girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, and Ana Cumpănaş. Once they determined that Dillinger was in the theater, the lead agent (Samuel A. Cowley) contacted J. Edgar Hoover for instructions, who recommended that they wait outside rather than risk a gun battle in a crowded theater. He also told the agents not to put themselves in harm's way, and that any man could open fire on Dillinger at the first sign of resistance. When the movie let out, Special Agent Melvin Purvis stood by the front door and signaled Dillinger's exit by lighting a cigar. Both he and the agents reported that Dillinger turned his head and looked directly at the agent as he walked by, glanced across the street, then moved ahead of his female companions, reached into his pocket but failed to extract his gun, and ran into a nearby alley.
Three agents opened fire, firing five shots. Dillinger was hit from behind and he fell face first to the ground. Two female bystanders were slightly wounded in the legs and buttocks by flying bullet and brick fragments. Dillinger was struck three times, twice in the chest, one actually nicking his heart, and the fatal shot, which entered the back of his neck and exited just under his right eye. An ambulance was summoned, though it was clear that Dillinger had quickly died from his gunshot wounds. At 10:50 p.m. on July 22, 1934, John Dillinger was pronounced dead at Alexian Brothers Hospital. According to the FBI, Dillinger died without saying a word. There were also reports of people dipping their handkerchiefs and skirts into the pools of blood that had formed as Dillinger lay in the alley in order to secure keepsakes of the entire affair. Dillinger's body was displayed to the public at the Cook Countymarker morgue after his death.

Dillinger was buried at Crown Hill Cemeterymarker (Section: 44 Lot: 94) in Indianapolismarker. His gravestone has had to be replaced several times because of vandalism by people chipping off pieces as souvenirs.

Film depictions

See also


  1. Matera, p. 10
  2. Matera, p. 9
  3. Matera, p. 12
  4. Doris' married surname was Hockman. Frances' married name was Thompson.
  5. Matera, p. 14
  6. Matera, p. 15
  7. Matera, pp. 16–17
  8. Matera, pp. 18–20
  9. "Certificate of Birth: Beryl Hovious." Morgan County Health Department, Martinsville, Indiana. Filed 9-1923.
  10. Matera, p. 20
  11. Stewart, Tony. Dillinger, The Hidden Truth: A Tribute to Gangsters and G-Men of The Great Depression Era. Xlibris Corporation, 2002. ISBN 1401053734.
  12. Matera, p. 22
  13. Matera, p. 24
  14. Matera, p. 25
  15. Matera, p. 27
  16. Matera, p. 26
  17. Matera, p. 28
  18. Matera, p. 32
  19. Matera, p. 37
  20. Matera, p. 35
  21. Matera, p. 39
  22. Nash, p.154
  23. Webb, Janet. "The day Tucson corralled Dillinger" Arizona Highways. January 8, 2006.
  24. Mori, Brian. "Dillinger Days frenzy coming up" Tucson Citizen. January 21, 2009.
  25. DeBartolo, Anthony. "Dillinger's Dupes: Town Seeks to Preserve a Jail Yet Escape a Dastardly Deed." Chicago Tribune. November 4, 1988.
  26. Toland, John. The Dillinger Days. Da Capo Press, 1995. ISBN 0306806266.
  27. "Special Agent W. Carter Baum." Officer Down Memorial Page.
  28. Matera, p. 353
  29. "Dillinger Slain in Chicago; Shot Dead by Federal Men in Front of Movie Theatre." New York Times. July 22, 1934.
  30. May, Allan, and Marilyn Bardsley. "Biograph Encounter." John Dillinger: Bank Robber or Robin Hood? - Crime Library.
  31. John Dillinger: Hero for the angry masses
  32. Lost Indiana: In Grave Condition
  33. "Notable Persons." Crown Hill Cemetery and Funeral Home. Accessed July 6, 2009.
  34. "Dillinger's grave attracting crowds due to "Public Enemies" movie." WKOW-TV. June 29, 2009. Accessed July 6, 2009.
  35. Costello, Mark. "Public Enemies Review." The New York Times Book Review. August 1, 2004. Retrieved 2-7-09.
  36. The Real John Dillinger: Is Public Enemies historically accurate?

Works cited

Further reading

External links

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